Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hugs, handshakes and a former PM

Chrétien receives honorary diploma of laws, delivers keynote address

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"An arts degree? Why not something useful, something that will get you a job?" asked the University of Winnipeg's arts valedictorian at the school's spring convocation ceremony Thursday.

Gregory Furmaniuk earned a bachelor of arts with honours and a gold medal in political science, then thanked all of the skeptics who pushed him and his classmates to pursue their degrees.

"Young people today are getting kicked in the butt by the economy, saddled with student debt," he said.

"(The skeptics) reminded you, you didn't do it for the career. You did it for yourself."

Furmaniuk's crowd-pleasing speech followed passionate talks by retiring U of W president and vice-chancellor Lloyd Axworthy and honorary doctorate recipient, former prime minister Jean Chrétien.

"Every one of us goes through life leaving something, but every time we leave, we also find something," said Axworthy, who joked about counting down his final days at the university.

"We're passing on a torch of responsibility to help make this a better governing community."

The U of W graduated 1,024 students during its three convocation ceremonies this spring.

After Axworthy spoke, Chrétien was presented with an honorary diploma of laws.

Axworthy helped drape a regal robe around the former prime minister, momentarily choking his former colleague by mistake.

"It's almost a Winnipeg handshake!" Chrétien joked, referring to the now-infamous incident in which he choked a protester with what he called a Shawinigan handshake.

Chrétien's main message to grads was to get involved in their communities.

He encouraged the students to consider running for political office.

"Try to be elected, no big deal if you don't win. It's not that bad, you've tried. And if you lose your riding provincially or federally, it's not you who's losing, it's the leader of the party. And if you win, it's not the leader of the party, it's you," he said.

"I spent 40 years in public life. Yes, since 1963 to the last days of 2003. I did not go to 2004 for one good reason: because I promised my wife I would leave politics before I was 70.

"I was 69 years old, 11 months and one day," said Chrétien of the day he left office.

After receiving a standing ovation for his speech, Chrétien looked on, seated front-row centre, as hundreds of arts grads crossed the stage.

Eventually, one grad gathered the courage to make a beeline onstage to meet Chrétien.

Four-year bachelor of arts recipient Rebecca Henderson was the first to shake Chrétien's hand.

"I remember thinking when I was going up, there were two people at the end of the row and there was only one. So I thought, 'This is my opportunity,' " she said.

Henderson said Chrétien seemed surprised by her forthrightness but appreciative of her gesture.

"I said to him, 'You gave a really great speech,' and he said, 'Thank you' and congratulated me," Henderson remembered.

"He gave a really impassioned speech, and I liked it. Even my dad, who hasn't always been a huge Chrétien fan, enjoyed it. Everyone was moved."

After the ceremony, Chrétien stuck around for a few minutes to answer questions.

Chrétien said his U of W diploma was important because it came from his old friend and former foreign affairs minister, Axworthy.

"Lloyd invited me and in a way, I wanted to be able to come and honour him. He was a very good politician and public servant. After he finished (in politics), he spent 10 more years at the university level with his dedication to public life."

Chrétien, who has received more honorary diplomas than he could remember on Thursday, also revealed he never attended his own convocation ceremony.

"We were so poor that I had to work and not stay for the graduation ceremony," he said.

The university held its third and final spring convocation ceremony in the afternoon, this one honouring science, business and economics grads.

John and Bonnie Buhler were given honorary doctorates of law at this ceremony, an action that was protested by the U of W Students' Association (UWSA).

UWSA's vice-president advocate, Peyton Veitch, and a handful of UWSA supporters handed out 200 leaflets titled Stickin' it to the Union. The leaflets described Buhler's troubled past with labour.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 13, 2014 B3

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